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    Honne and Tatemae

    Kyouri Kai

    Knowledge :

    Honne and Tatemae

    Post by Kyouri Kai on Fri 22 Feb 2008, 2:32 pm

    There is the way things are and the way we'd like them to be. The reality and the facade. The real reason and the pretext. The substance and the form. Being direct and being diplomatic. And the truth and the white lie. In short, that is honne and tatemae, respectively. Since avoiding conflict and trouble is extremely important in Japan, using diplomatic language is often used rather than the direct approach. It's said that in formal situations a direct "No" is avoided and there are a thousand nicer alternatives -- which can be true, but it depends a lot on the situation and social status of the parties involved. Some westerners unfairly call this deceptive, but this shows more ignorance of how the culture and language are intertwined. Japanese may say things very politely and vaguely, but if the meaning is not clear it's perfectly acceptable to ask for clarification. But while we in the west judge tatemae to be cake icing and hypocrisy, the Japanese have elavated it into an art. Sometimes, anyway. When it comes to creating a reason, in some cases the Japanese seem to have left their reasoning on Pluto. Like blocking European ski equipment from the Japanese market because "Japanese snow is different". In fact, almost every "reason" for not importing foreign goods is crammed full of it. While many so-called Japan "experts" tell the world about how much Japanese stress "harmony", the reality is that they push THE IMAGE OF harmony. What lies beneath may be completely different.

    "Let's have dinner together sometime." -- A Culture Clash

    In the west when someone says to another "let's have dinner together sometime", it usually means "let's have dinner together sometime". Sounds like an invitation, doesn't it? And if you're new in town, don't have a lot of friends yet, or looking for a date, it sounds even better. Unfortunately, if a Japanese person says that or "come over to my place sometime" to you, what he/she really might mean is "I hope we get along well together." Is that more than a little confusing? I had 2 big shocks from this myself. When I first started working at a company, I had one secretary (the cute one everybody wanted to date) tell me this. Now, if the other 5 or 6 secretaries all said the same thing to me as a matter of etiquette, I would've caught on immediately. But only one did, and after agreeing on a date and time, I got stood up. I dismissed it as a misunderstanding, but when a similar situation occured again later, I finally got the message. So let this be a warning -- take offers with a pillar of salt. Unless specifics like a date and time are mentioned, don't hold your breath. If you're really interested, leave your phone number, tell the person to call you anytime, but don't sit waiting by the phone Saturday night.

    Once you adjust your thinking from romance language syntax (subject-verb-object) to the Japanese syntax (subject-object-verb), Japanese is easy to learn. Understanding it is a different matter though. How's that? In Japan, a part of tatemae is speaking diplomatically, and what is not said may be more important than what is. There are also a certain number of fixed phrases that translated directly don't mean a lot. "That's a little difficult" (Sore wa chotto muzukashii) really means "No way!". "I'll think about it" (Kangaete okimasu) is a declination or refusal. And "Yoroshiku o-negai shimasu" can mean "pleased to meet you", "with my best regards", or "I leave it in your hands, please do your best". Why don't they just say "no" when they mean no, you ask? How western of you. We might like it more but in Japan it's not part of the culture -- besides that, there's always a 1 in 100 chance that the situation might change and then you might say yes -- so why burn your bridges behind you?

    taken from Japanese Culture: A Primer for Newcomers